Government to review fit note system

fit note systemPrime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced government plans to review the fit note system for people who are not well enough to work.

In a speech on 19 May, Sunak said the government will design a new system where people have easy and rapid access to specialised work and health support to help them back to work from their first fit note conversation. It will also move away from GPs having responsibility for offering notes and people being declared not fit for work by default.

The government first announced plans to reform the fit note system in the Autumn Statement in November 2023. This included examining options for improving assessments for individuals whose health affects their ability to work, and integrating quicker access to specialised employment and health support for returning to work.

Sunak said: “We don’t just need to change the sick note, we need to change the sick note culture so the default becomes what work you can do, not what you can’t. Building on the pilots we’ve already started, we’re going to test shifting the responsibility for assessment from GPs and giving it to specialist work and health professionals who have the dedicated time to provide an objective assessment of someone’s ability to work and the tailored support they need to do so.”

Karl Bennett, wellbeing director of Vivup and chair of the Employee Assistance Programme Association (EAPA), added: “The issue is not having the capacity to issue fit notes, it’s having the resources available within the NHS to support those people when they are at their most vulnerable. Visiting a GP may be a last resort for some, so investment is needed to support people, rather than increase access to fit notes.

“This demonstrates the support needed by employers to help employees recognise when they are feeling low and have in place the tools needed to support mental health issues. This includes regular training for managers around the services available and focus on organisational culture, which needs to be one of inclusiveness without fear of consequence when asking for help. All employees should have access to the services offered by an EAP, while employers should have funding made available to them to ensure they are not choosing between their employees’ mental health and paying a fair wage.”

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Dave Capper, chief executive officer at Westfield Health, said: “While it is optimistic to hear more from the government about public health, we need a greater focus on implementing key support for those with long-term sickness and encouraging preventative care rather than targeting the sick-note culture. Workplace health and wellbeing must be at the centre of any government response to the long-term sickness crisis of our employees.

“We would like to see the government go further and invest in new initiatives designed to increase wellbeing support. We ask that this includes clear guidance for employers on how they can support their employees’ physical and mental health, preferably in the form of a legally binding and regulated framework, as well as clearer routes to access for employees.”